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Albert Pujols as a man among boys

The Angels' new slugger was impressive even in high school, but somehow there were 401 players drafted ahead of him.

February 11, 2012|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Angels first baseman Albert Pujols had a slugger's reputation while playing at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo.
Angels first baseman Albert Pujols had a slugger's reputation while… (Mario Jose Sanchez / The…)

Reporting from Kansas City, Mo. — It's hard to fathom the trajectory of a ball hit from home plate at Liberty High to an air-conditioning unit on the roof of a two-story building behind the left-center field fence.

The fence is 375 feet from home. It's another 50 feet up an embankment to the building. The metal air-conditioning unit is about 20 feet in from the edge of the roof.

And Albert Pujols hit one up there?

Yes he did — as an 18-year-old high school junior.

"The thing just went and went and went, and then you heard this, 'Bong!'" recalled Dave Fry, Pujols' coach at Fort Osage High in Independence, Mo. "I thought, 'Jiminy, did he hit a ball that far?' It had to be 485-490 feet."

Like the famous Ted Williams shot marked by a single red seat deep in Fenway Park's right-field bleachers, the Liberty homer is a part of Pujols lore.

It's just one of many legendary shots on a Pujols' power trip that began on the scraggly fields of the Dominican Republic, blossomed in the nation's heartland, took a detour this winter to Anaheim and probably will end amid the lush, rolling hills of Cooperstown, N.Y., home to baseball's Hall of Fame.

Marty Kilgore, Pujols' coach at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, remembers a majestic 1999 shot Pujols hit at Highland College in Kansas. The ball flew over the 375-foot sign in left-center, over a street behind the fence and off a tree in the backyard of a house.

"It had to be more than 500 feet," Kilgore said. "Their coach still talks about it today."

It's tougher for Tony La Russa to single out a most prodigious Pujols blast. He was the St. Louis Cardinals manager for every one of Pujols' 445 career big league homers and 18 postseason shots.

"There's about 20 tied for first," La Russa said. "It's impossible to pick one."

As for Pujols' favorite, he didn't say. Through his agent, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

When it comes to slugging, Pujols, now 32 and a strapping 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, has always been ahead of the curve. And the fastball, changeup and slider, for that matter.

He was deemed "a man among boys" in high school and junior college because of his imposing size and power, and after a rapid rise to the major leagues as a 21-year-old in 2001, he was just as dominant at baseball's highest level.

In addition to those homers, Pujols had 2,073 hits, a .328 average, .420 on-base percentage and .617 slugging percentage in 11 seasons at St. Louis.

The first baseman won three National League most-valuable-player awards, a rookie-of-the-year award and led the Cardinals to World Series championships in 2006 and 2011. In December, he signed a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Angels, the third-largest contract in baseball history.

"In the conversation of the greatest players of all time," La Russa said, "Albert is in there already."

Yet, in 1999, despite Pujols' Herculean feats, talent evaluators deemed 401 amateur players better. That's how many were drafted before the Cardinals took Pujols, then a shortstop, in the 13th round.

"That's 401 picks where we all have a little explaining to do," said Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak, the team's scouting director in 1999.

One scout who has covered the Kansas City area for more than 30 years provided a frank assessment of a circa-1999 Pujols: "I didn't think he could play."

The scout, who spoke at a recent Maple Woods scrimmage, would talk about Pujols only if his name wasn't used. His current club doesn't allow him to speak to reporters.

"First, there was his age — a lot of us thought he was older than he claimed," the scout said. "He could really juice a fastball, but he couldn't handle the slider away. Plus, he was athletic, but not highly athletic. There was a question about what position he'd play.

"I missed, as a lot of scouts did, on his makeup and work ethic, OK? That's my fault. I'll take full blame for that. … The one thing I learned from Albert is, I never walk away from raw power with a fastball. That will play."

Kilgore, who took over as coach at Maple Woods the year Pujols arrived, cringes as he listens. Thirteen years later, it still bothers him that the outside perception of Pujols didn't match the player he knew.

"What he's had to deal with, from jealousy from parents and umpires to all these people questioning his age … he's had to overcome a lot," Kilgore said.

As for the draft-day snub? "I don't think Albert has ever forgotten it," Kilgore said.

While Pujols looked older, "He was as crazy and nutty as the other kids," Fry said.

Phil Caldarella, who works in the Fort Osage district business office, said Pujols' birth certificate was verified by officials from the NCAA and Major League Baseball. "People who were around him could tell he was just a teenage kid playing the game he loved," he added.

Pujols grew up in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, and like many kids in the impoverished, baseball-crazed nation, he used sticks for bats and milk cartons for gloves.

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